Magazine article The Spectator

Men with a Mission

Magazine article The Spectator

Men with a Mission

Article excerpt

Radio

I am greatly in favour of the Internet and use it far more than I would have thought possible a few years ago. This column, for example, was emailed to The Spectator in seconds. One disadvantage cropped up recently when Katie, my partner, discovered a search engine called Google. As an exercise she keyed in my name. Next to references to things I'd published, and the activities of various people with the same surname, displayed prominently was a site that said I had gone to prison for life for murdering my second wife.

`Did you?' she inquired. Certainly not, I told her indignantly, you can ring and ask her. When I looked more closely I realised that the name was wrong - it should have referred to a Michael Telling, a member of the Vestey meat family (no relation) who did indeed go down for such a crime. Although all was clear when you entered the site it was still disconcerting to see it on the Net. Listening to the polished and authoritative In Business, Inside Google, on Radio Four last Sunday I discovered that the search engine Google has 2 billion web pages with hundreds of millions of searches every day, mostly from the United States and Europe, fewer from Asia and Africa. The presenter Peter Day went to Silicon Valley in California to find out more about what has become a leading search engine after only four years.

Above the reception desk at Googleplex, the headquarters, all queries to the search engine are projected as they come up. Day, slightly in awe, saw the enormous variety of information required by users, some of the names were baffling: Vampire House, Panic Room, the film, South East London Shiners, atom bombs (in German), Ballroom kids, and from Germany, how to take a dog on holiday in Holland. `This is the nearest one can get to peeping into the world's brain,' he says. It was started by two students at Stanford University, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, whose mission was to build the world's best search engine and to make all information accessible and useful.

So why is it the best? Tom Standage, author of a book about the telegraph, The Victorian Internet, said it contained within the search engine a very clever algorithm which was more attuned to what the user is really searching for. `You tend to get what you're looking for.' The very name Google is derived from a mathematical term, googol. …

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